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CHAPTER IV
THE HOUSE BY THE LOCK

I arose on Christmas morning with the same feeling. There was absolutely nothing arranged for me to do that day, as I had informed no one I knew of my presence in London, meaning to be for the present somewhat of a free-lance. I had wished not to be obliged to account to anyone as to my goings and comings. I had not wanted any invitations to family festivities on Christmas Day to "keep me from being lonely." My desire had been to go exactly where the whim of the moment might lead me, and without a moment's hesitation I had declined the invitation to "Christmas dinner" which poor Farnham had dragged for me from his friend, Carson Wildred. It might amuse me, Farnham had thought, as Wildred's house up the river was a queer old place, interesting to anyone who cared for that sort of thing, and they two were dining quite alone. Wildred and he had had some final arrangements to settle up, and as Christmas was such an "off day," so far as amusements were concerned, it had been Wildred's idea that they should utilise it in this manner. The other man took Farnham's hint, and civilly gave the required invitation, of course, but even had it been offered with enthusiasm I should not have been tempted to accept.

Now, however, I felt a curious inclination to call at the House by the Lock, as it was named. I would not dine there, I told myself, but there must be an inn in the neighbourhood, where I could obtain some slight Christmas cheer, if I chose to embark upon the rather mild adventure of going up the river on this wintry holiday.

It was years since I had been in England, and the thought of a solitary stroll by the Thames along a country towing-path was not so dismal as it might have been to those who had not tramped with the equanimity of custom through African jungles.

Once the idea had taken root in my mind, I was impatient to carry it out. I would go, I decided, almost immediately, lunching at the nearest decent inn to Purley Lock, and turning up at Wildred's house at four or five in the afternoon. I would spend an hour there, perhaps, and return to town in time for dinner.

I had not got up particularly early, had breakfasted late, and by the time I was inclined to start it was past one o'clock. I had over an hour's journey to Great Marlow, the nearest railway station, with a drive of some four miles to follow, before I could reach the Chimes Inn, which I was told was the only one within some distance of Purley Lock.

It was a quaint old hostelry I found, and an agreeable landlord, who had hardly expected guests at so out-of-the-way a place on Christmas Day, and having finished his own midday repast, was very ready for a gossip with me.

Oh, yes, he said, he knew the House by the Lock, quite well. It was in reality situated at some little distance from the Lock itself, quite a quarter-of-a-mile, but then it was the nearest house, and perhaps that was the reason it had got its name. It was a very old place, but Mr. Wildred, since taking it about two years before, had had a great many alterations and improvements made both outside and in. He was something of an architect himself, it seemed–this rich Mr. Wildred; at all events, it was believed that he had made the designs for the alterations, and having a great fad that way, had even helped the chaps he had had down from London to do the indoor work and decorating. There had only been two or three men, so that progress had been slow, and everyone had wondered that such a rich man as Mr. Wildred was reported to be should have had things done in so niggling a manner. But, since then, they had concluded that he must have known what he was about, for everyone who went there came away with great reports of the decorations.

I was not particularly interested in these details that my landlord had to tell me.

Though, after all, there was an indefinable curiosity in my mind regarding everything that concerned Carson Wildred.

I got away from the man's animated gossip in the course of half-an-hour or so. I had a walk of a mile to take, having dismissed my fly, and meaning, after I had paid my rather aimless visit, to tramp all the way back to Marlow again. As I started, a clock on the inn table struck four.

There was a long streak of gold along the horizon of the otherwise dull grey sky, and a rising wind moaned drearily among the bare lower branches of the trees.

The scene looked indescribably desolate, and yet there was a certain beauty in it, too. I had been told exactly how to reach the House by the Lock, and when, after passing the somewhat weedy-looking lock, I began skirting along a species of backwater, and came in sight of a long, low-browed house close to the river, I knew I had reached my journey's end.

The place had the appearance of being only a restored remnant of an ancient abbey fallen into decay.

Indeed, at one end of the house a ruined wall jutted out, with a row of stone window-frames, half filled in with sombre trails of ivy; then in the middle came the habitable part of the old house, with an imposing front door, which might have belonged to some big Gothic Church; magnificent windows, that reminded me of a certain dear old college at Oxford, well-known in younger days; and beyond, to the left, was the wing evidently added by Wildred. It was in wretched taste, I thought, with its pretentiousness and its huge round tower at the end, utterly out of keeping with the rest. Then, as I criticised, my eye was caught by a puff of fiery smoke that suddenly rose above the battlements of the hideous tall tower.

I could not quite understand this phenomenon, for the tower, so far as I could see, had been merely built with the mistaken idea of being ornamental. Though new, it was intended to present the effect of being ruinous, having little dark chinks in lieu of windows.

Still, the smoke was there, belching out sparks not only from the apex of the tower, but stealing in a belated puff or two from the chinks in the wall nearest the top.

I thought of fire, and quickened my steps, meaning to mention to the servant who should open the door what I had seen. The lawn stretched down to the river, which was here, as I said, a mere backwater, and having entered through a gate set in the side of a big brick wall, I walked briskly up the short gravelled path that led to the house.

At least Wildred had had the sense to let this door alone, with its carvings of oak, and its big ornamental hinges and knocker. The only modern innovation was an electric bell, which I touched, and then, grasping the huge knocker, I rapped out an additional summons, which echoed drearily, as though through an empty house.

So near was I to the river, while I stood waiting on the door-stone to be admitted, that I could hear the soft lapping of the water against the shore. Darkness had fallen now, and an ugly recollection of my dream suddenly sprang up in my brain. Just so, I remembered, had I heard the water whispering, as in that hateful vision I had bent over to see the dead man's beckoning hand.

It was long before my ring and knock were answered, so long that I had my finger on the bell again. But at that moment I heard footsteps walking somewhat uncertainly along an uncarpeted floor within. Still the door remained closed; but at a long narrow window, which was the duplicate of another on the opposite side of the door, I saw for an instant that a face was pressed against the latticework of the glass.

"What ill-trained servants this man keeps," was my thought; and then, somewhat impatiently, I rang again.

The door opened almost immediately into a dimly-lighted hall, when a respectable, middle-aged man, out of livery, evidently a butler, stood revealed. Yet I could have sworn that the face at the window, seen but a second ago, had been that of a woman, young, pallid, and darkly bright of eye!